16 of Our Favorite Time Machines
To many a scientist, time machines are the holy grail. The ability to move from one time to another — be it the past or the future — is endlessly tantalizing. You could see what becomes of the world beyond your lifespan, or you could venture into the past to solve one of history’s mysteries.
The notion of time travel has inspired many storytellers over the years, and each of them has come up with a means of traveling through time that’s unique. Some of them concern themselves with providing scientific explanations; others don’t bother. Whether they’re believable or not, here are fifteen of our favorite time machines.
There may be some mild spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen these movies or TV shows.
H.G. Wells’ Time Machine
The granddaddy of all time machines is H.G. Wells’ titular Time Machine. Although the 1960 movie based on it has popularized the appearance of the well-known sleigh-type Machine, the original novel never gives a detailed description of what shape the Machine takes. There are bits and pieces described, such as a metallic brass framework, a saddle for sitting in, two ivory levers, and other nondescript parts made of nickel and quartz.
Exactly what kind of science the Time Machine harnesses to conduct its travels is never explained. (Given that it was written in 1895, a plausible scientific explanation probably doesn’t seem important.) All that’s known is that pushing one lever forward moves the Machine into the future; the second lever is for traveling backward in time. The further and harder you push one of the levers, the faster and further you’ll travel.
In the book, Wells’ unnamed main character encounters a post-apocalyptic Earth 800,000 years in the future. He eventually travels forward to witness the planet’s end, and the sun going supernova. It’s a grim tale but was left open-ended, suggesting there could have been more adventures in time. Multiple writers over the years have attempted to follow up Wells’ novel with further stories of the unnamed Time Traveler and his wondrous Machine.
A 2002 reboot reimagined the Time Machine as more of a steampunk orb. It had obvious nods to the original but was a far more complex construction.
Doctor Who’s TARDIS is one of the oldest and best-loved time machines ever to grace television or film. Appearing as a blue, British police box on the outside, newcomers are always stunned to find that the TARDIS is much, much “bigger on the inside.” The interior, you see, exists in a separate dimension that’s tethered to the TARDIS’ exterior, allowing for this disparity in size. (Confused yet?)
There are countless rooms inside, but the Console Room is the most important and the only one that’s usually seen. That’s where the time travel controls can be found, on a hexagonal platform surrounding a massive center column, and it’s also where the doors are that lead outside. The appearance and configuration of the Console Room — which the Doctor has referred to as the “desktop theme” — can also be changed at will; more often than not, a new version is installed when the Doctor regenerates into a new form.
The TARDIS is powered by a star that’s been frozen in time at the moment it exploded and became a black hole. (Time Lords, the Doctor’s people and the builders of the TARDIS, are a highly advanced race capable of mind-boggling technology.) TARDIS is an acronym for “Time And Relative Dimension In Space,” a complicated way of saying it can go anywhere in space and time. Or as the Doctor puts it, “the doorway to everything that ever was or could be.” It materializes at its destination while making a distinctive groaning sound, but it’s also capable of flight like a more traditional vessel.
The problem with the TARDIS is that it has a mind of its own. The matrix at its core is sentient, and very often tends to ignore the Doctor’s controls. Instead of taking the Doctor where he wants to go, it frequently takes him where he needs to go, to help people around the universe.
In the Doctor Who universe, there are other time travel devices as well, such as the Vortex Manipulator. The Manipulator is a tiny machine that’s attached to a leather gauntlet worn around the wrist. This device is favored by other time travelers like Jack Harkness and River Song. Despite having similar technology to the TARDIS, it’s been implied that the Vortex Manipulator is a much cruder and less desirable form of time travel.
Arguably the coolest time machine ever — or at least, for a generation or two — has to be the silver DeLorean from Back to the Future. The all-important machine at the heart of the Michael J. Fox/Christopher Lloyd adventure was built into the form of a car, because Doc Brown, its inventor, required speed to make time travel work.
It functioned via the Flux Capacitor, a never-explained device that “makes time travel possible,” as Doc tells Marty McFly in the film. It must be incredibly complex because it was thirty years after Doc first conceived of it that he was finally able to build it. The Flux Capacitor required 1.21 gigawatts of electricity to power — which Doc achieved with the illegal use of radioactive plutonium. When Marty became stranded in 1955, he had to harness lightning from a storm to get the DeLorean to send him home to 1985.
Doc Brown chose a DeLorean as his time machine for two reasons: 1) he liked its style, and 2) the DeLorean’s stainless steel body gave the machine an advantage (also never explained).
“Time circuits” beside the steering wheel allowed you to input the exact date and time you wanted to travel to, but physically, you were restricted to the same location. To travel, the driver had to push the DeLorean to 88 miles per hour; at that speed, the Flux Capacitor was activated, and the DeLorean disappeared into the past or the future, leaving a tire trail of fire in its wake.
Back to the Future, Part III introduced a second time machine, built by Doc Brown in 1885. With no cars available, he converted a steam train instead.
Time Displacement Sphere
The Terminator series has gotten convoluted over the years, particularly with the fifth entry, Terminator: Genysis, which increased the use of time travel to rewrite plot lines from prior movies. But in all of the movies — and the TV show, The Sarah Connor Chronicles — time travel is always depicted in the same way.
In Terminator’s fictional world, humans and Terminators are sent backward (and once or twice, forward) in time via machinery known as Time Displacement Equipment. The TDE is a highly complex machine housed in a vast underground facility, and it’s unclear who originally developed it: Skynet or the resistance. It’s changed hands between both factions more than once.
The massive round machine has a spherical shaped empty space in its center, which the person (or machine) about to travel through time enters. When the TDE is activated, it creates a Time Displacement Sphere, which is what transports one through time. The catch is that nothing but human skin or Terminator metal can survive the trip, so travelers arrive nude. Upon arrival, the Sphere eradicates everything in the spot where it materializes, be it metal, asphalt, or any other material, along with giving off lightning bolt-like electrical discharges. The Sphere quickly fades away, and the (naked) traveler emerges into a new time period.
If you’re in the market for some ultra-cerebral time travel with real-world physics at work, then look no further than the low-tech metal box at the heart of Primer. This little-movie-that-could filmed on a $7,000 budget, but it won awards and significant acclaim for its gritty realism.
In Primer, a pair of blue-collar engineers stumble upon the ability to enter a time loop, and thereby move through time, while trying to build a device that changes gravity. Trying to explain any more of the movie is an exercise in madness, as it’s intentionally difficult to understand. But the time machine itself is probably about as realistic as time travel will be presented on film.
The box itself is just big enough to hold a single person. It’s made up of what looks like taped-together metal pieces with bits of the duo’s gravity-related gadgetry affixed to them. The interior is about as interesting as the inside of a cardboard box. In short, time moves backward inside the box while time moves forward normally outside of it. This has the heady result of causing a duplicate of the time traveler to exist for the same length of time that the original was inside the box, moving backward in time.
Unless you’re a physicist, don’t think about that too hard.
Sam Beckett was the lead scientist behind a top-secret project attempting to achieve (you guessed it) time travel. While attempting to save the project from threats to its funding, Sam stepped into the device he and his scientists had constructed, the Project Accelerator. He was successful in traveling through time, but it happened in a very unexpected way.
Instead of traveling bodily into the past, his consciousness was sent back to inhabit the body of another. (That person’s consciousness was traded out to Sam’s body in the present.) Due to some kind of glitch or supernatural effect that’s never adequately explained, Sam was forced to continually “leap” from one person to another throughout history, and the only way he could end his time in one place and leap again was to fix something that the real person screwed up.
As Quantum Leap went on (it lasted for five seasons), the “science” behind Sam’s leaping through time started leaning more toward the metaphysical, with Sam coming to believe that someone or something was intentionally controlling his travels. Suggested in the series finale that Sam himself was subconsciously controlling them, but how this could be possible was never explained.
Guardian of Forever
Star Trek is no stranger to time travel, having used it countless times throughout multiple TV shows and movies. Captain Kirk and his crew used the old slingshot-around-the-sun trick to enter a time warp. The Enterprise-E followed the Borg back in time via an artificial rift in time created by the Borg. Star Trek: Voyager imagined a Starfleet of the future charging entire starships with safeguarding the timeline and repairing the damage done to it. J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot had an older, original-flavor Spock using a time ship to journey backward in time to the early days of the U.S.S. Enterprise to stop a time-traveling villain.
There’s no better form of time travel known to Trek, though, than the legendary Guardian of Forever. Built by an advanced, ancient, and presumably extinct race, the Guardian was a sentient time portal that claimed to be more than five billion years old. It appeared in an episode of the original Star Trek series, where Kirk and Spock were forced to use it after a delirious Doctor McCoy ran through and changed history.
The Guardian itself is an asymmetrical oval portal that glowed from an unknown light source. How the Guardian was built and how it functions are unknown. It is situated on a dead planet amid the ruins of what’s assumed to be the race that built it.
Despite its early 80s TV production values and the unfortunate exclamation point in its name, Voyagers! managed to introduce one of the niftiest time travel devices ever. The Omni is an ingenious little gadget that fits into the palm of your hand. It’s shaped roughly like a pocket watch, and like the TARDIS, lets you travel anywhere in time and space.
A dome top flips open to reveal the controls inside, a series of concentric round dials that let you set the date and time that you want to travel. In the center of these dials is a small round ball, similar to a trackball, which represents a globe of the Earth. Crosshairs in the middle let you set the place you want to travel to by turning the globe. The brilliance of the Omni is that it’s compact, portable, and easy to use, making it perfect for adventurers on the go.
The premise of Voyagers! was that there’s a secret society of time travelers who zip around, fixing the places where history has gone wrong. How and why history has gone wrong — not to mention how the Voyagers know the difference between what is and what should be — is never explained. But if history is going wrong, a red light on the Omni flashes a warning; if the Voyagers have managed to restore history back to what it should be, a green light appears.
Quality of the show (or lack thereof) aside — it lasted only one season — the Omni is such a strong idea, it’s amazing that no one has copied or adapted the little gizmo for a more modern story.
In DC Comics’ The Flash, hero Barry Allen once used his scientific expertise to create a device that would let him use his incredible speed to move through time. He called it the “Cosmic Treadmill,” because it resembles a standard treadmill.
When Barry (or another speedster) runs on it, there’s a pseudo-science-y explanation for how it sends him through time. Frankly, it’s a bunch of gobbledygook, having something to do with cosmic rays, radioactivity, and the “Speed Force” at the heart of Barry’s powers. However it works, Flash can use it to access both the past and the future.
Over the years, Barry has had numerous adventures in time using the Cosmic Treadmill. At one point, it even allowed him to travel to alternate dimensions.
Excellent! In the 1989 goofball comedy/adventure Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, it’s wise not to take things too seriously. No way could these two dudes create a time machine of their own, so they receive one from the future to help prepare them for the high school history presentation they have to pass or all of future human society will unravel. It sounds dumb but just go with it.
The time machine Bill and Ted utilize is disguised as a standard phone booth, as in the kind that Superman likes to change clothes in. To activate it, you step inside and dial the date, time, and location you want to visit. You soon whisked away into a vortex, moving forward or backward through time and space to wherever you want to go.
Bill and Ted run into an obvious problem when they start bringing famous historical figures along for the ride: only so many people can squeeze into a small glass box. Somehow it all works out with a “most triumphant” resolution, but not before the booth takes damage and has to be repaired. How it works is anybody’s guess; “technology from the future” is probably the best explanation anyone’s ever going to get.
A pair of concentric rings surround an amulet with a tiny, inset hourglass. The whole thing hangs on an extra-long gold chain. Time travel is accomplished by wearing the chain and winding the nobs on the ends of the amulet. When you let go, the amulet spins and you move through time.
How does the Time Turner work? Science need not apply in this case, since the Time Turner is an artifact from Harry Potter’s wizarding world. In short, it’s magic. It’s a device that’s powered by magic. How does that happen? Only J.K. Rowling knows for sure.
There are countless magical objects in the wizarding world, from brooms to paintings to hats and maps. Each of these objects are presumed to be magical because they’ve been enchanted by a witch or wizard. So it can be assumed that the Time Turner has been similarly made magical by the actions of some talented magic-wielder.
The product of a ten-year, $7 billion scientific project by the United States government, the Time Tunnel was a cylindrically-shaped device through which one began in the present on one end and emerged into the past or the future on the other end. It’s implied on the 1966 TV show that the Tunnel is the result of an enormous amount of scientific research and development, but it’s never explained exactly how it works.
The control room where the Time Tunnel is housed is somehow able to maintain visual and audible contact with the two scientists who use it to travel through time. Unfortunately, their initial experiment with the Time Tunnel results in their being “stuck” in time, traveling from one time to another via a vague use of the Time Tunnel back in the present. The control room scientists can offer aid in the form of information and occasionally tools and other devices.
The Time Tunnel lasted for just one season of 30 episodes, with the finale returning to the location the time travelers visited in the pilot. Fans took this to mean that the Time Tunnel was sending the scientists through time in a cyclical pattern that would repeat forever. Tough break.
Eye of Agamotto
The 2016 Marvel film Doctor Strange introduced moviegoers to the magical/mystical side of its universe. It’s there that a powerful artifact exists, called the Eye of Agamotto. An amulet worn around the neck, this particular device has, as Doctor Strange himself discovered, the unique ability to manipulate time.
Not exactly a time travel device, it can render many of the same effects thanks to its power to rewind or fast-forward time. Its exact radius of effect is ambiguous, but through the careful use of spellcasting, the good Doctor learned to use it to peer into the past, to rewind and change catastrophic events in a large section of Hong Kong, and even trap a cosmic entity in a time loop. The full extent of the Eye of Agamotto’s powers are never seen, but it’s conceivable that a sorcerer could use it to move him or herself through time.
Incidentally, while the Eye is based on a similar-looking and same-named artifact used by Doctor Strange in comic books, its specific nature as a time-controlling device is unique to the film.
Men in Black III is a movie that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. At face value, there are plot holes a plenty that could make the whole thing fall apart. Then again, we’re talking about time travel, a completely fictional science, so maybe we’re all mad.
The plot of MiB III requires the use of a device that can send a person backward or forward through time. The doodad, in this case, is a Time-Jump Device, a handheld machine that’s highly illegal throughout the universe. This being Men in Black, of course operating it means there’s a catch and a goofy one at that.
The catch is that the further you want to travel in time, the faster you have to be physically moving. In the movie, one character needs to travel back by decades, so the only way he can build up enough speed to travel that far is by jumping from the top of a skyscraper while holding the device. (“Time-Jump,” get it?) Shorter jumps can be executed much more simply, but there are some inconsistencies because shorter jumps seem to send you back into your own body. It’s a head-scratcher.
How the Time-Jump device works is never explained, but again: it’s Men in Black, so don’t expect there to be an abundance of logic. On the plus side, it looks really cool; its teardrop design fits the films’ aesthetic nicely.
TimeCop is… Well, it’s a movie. It’s not a great movie, but it’s not a terrible one, either. In it, the near future, time travel has become a fairly common technology. It’s illegal, of course, but not hard to exploit if you have connections. So a group of law enforcement officers are assembled to travel through time and prevent criminals from disrupting history.
Not an awful premise, as these things go. But the time machine itself is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it uses a wedge-shaped rocket sled that’s hooked up to an enormous octagonal machine, that slams you straight into a concrete wall. And anything that uses rockets is automatically cool.
The weird part comes when you arrive. Inexplicably, the rocket sled is nowhere to be found on the other end of the trip, and somehow, you simply walk out of the time stream. Where did the sled go? How do TimeCops go from rocketing to walking? And how do they return to rocketing again by walking back into the time stream carrying a handheld remote?
There’s nothing about this “science” that makes any kind of sense. But the sled does have a coolness factor to it.